Source: O's make offer for Marlins' Lee

Payroll problems make Florida prime player in offseason trade market

General manager meetings

November 14, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

PHOENIX - The Orioles have money to spend. The Florida Marlins have payroll to trim.

That could turn the two teams into trade partners again this offseason, and yesterday major league sources said the Orioles were targeting Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee.

Late last night, in fact, one major league source gave indications that the Orioles had made an offer for Lee and were waiting to hear back from the Marlins before leaving the general manager meetings today.

Orioles vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan would not discuss their specific dealings with clubs this week, but industry sources said the Orioles made multiple offers to teams looking to slash payroll.

The Milwaukee Brewers are trying to trim next year's payroll from $40 million to $30 million, and they have been shopping power hitting first baseman Richie Sexson. The Orioles had discussions with the Brewers early in the week, but those talks stalled, and by last night, Lee seemed to be the more likely trade target.

Sexson hit 45 home runs last season, but he is under contract for $8.6 million next season in his final year before free agency.

A report in yesterday's South Florida Sun Sentinel indicated that the world champion Marlins have serious payroll concerns and could be forced to bring back a team with a $60 million payroll next season, with $11 million of that tied up in deferred payments.

Lee, who won the National League Gold Glove Award at first base this year, is eligible for salary arbitration and could earn about $7 million next season.

He hit .291 this season with 31 home runs and 113 RBIs, and most scouts feel his power production would greatly increase at a hitter-friendly park such as Camden Yards.

The Arizona Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles also were searching for first base help this week, putting them in the running for Sexson and Lee.

At midseason, the Orioles and Marlins talked about swapping first basemen - Lee for Jeff Conine - and Conine eventually went to Florida for pitching prospects Denny Bautista and Don Levinski.

Beattie and Flanagan have said adding offense is their top priority this offseason, and first base is one position they're hoping to upgrade. David Segui is still under contract for one more season at $7 million, but with his history of injury problems, he isn't being counted on to be a regular next season - at first base or designated hitter, according to Beattie.

"I don't think we can count on that necessarily," Beattie said. "We hope he's healthy, and anything he does is a plus. But injuries are a fact of life, and we all have to be prepared for the alternative."

Options declined

The GM meetings will end this morning, and the Orioles will be coming home with fewer players than they had when they got here.

Instead of adding to their roster yesterday, they continued to trim, announcing that they have declined the options for shortstop Deivi Cruz, as well as reliever Kerry Ligtenberg.

The Cruz decision was expected, since the Orioles are hoping to increase their offensive production at shortstop. But the Ligtenberg move came as somewhat of a surprise because he posted a respectable, 3.34 ERA in 68 relief appearances last season.

Instead of picking up Ligtenberg's $1.2 million option, the Orioles exercised his $200,000 buyout. It seemed to reflect widespread industry confidence that salaries will come down this offseason.

Beattie said he hopes to add two or three right-handed relievers to bolster the bullpen. Ligtenberg, 32, apparently didn't make the grade.

"Kerry was solid for us," Beattie said. "We just decided we'd wait. We think the market's going to open up, and we'll see what it brings."

Right now, there are plenty of right-handed relievers on the free-agent market, including Keith Foulke, Ugueth Urbina, Armando Benitez, Tim Worrell, Tom Gordon, Jose Mesa, Mike Williams, LaTroy Hawkins, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Jeff Nelson, Mike Timlin, Curtis Leskanic, Jason Grimsley and Chad Fox.

The Orioles told Cruz they were interested in bringing him back in a utility role.

Orioles officials have played down their interest in free-agent shortstop Miguel Tejada, saying they would be content moving second baseman Brian Roberts over to shortstop, but one high-ranking team source yesterday said Tejada is still high on their list. They also have interest in Kaz Matsui, the switch-hitting shortstop from Japan.

Praise for Mazzilli

The Orioles' decision to hire Lee Mazzilli as manager may have surprised some teams last week, but not the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Last year, the Devil Rays interviewed Mazzilli and came very close to hiring him before longtime Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella became available.

"I believe if Lou hadn't become available, and we would have had to make a decision, we would have chosen Lee Mazzilli," said Rays GM Chuck LaMar.

Around the horn

Mazzilli was at a dinner honoring New York Yankees manager Joe Torre on Wednesday night, and he playfully tried to talk Roger Clemens out of retirement, so he could come pitch for the Orioles. "He just came over to me and gave me a hug and congratulated me," Mazzilli said. "I said, `Are you going to come out of retirement for me?' " ... Former Orioles pitcher Pat Hentgen is looking to sign a one-year deal by next week, and 12 teams have expressed interest, his agent, Bob LaMonte, said. The Orioles have yet to make a one-year offer, but Beattie said, "[Hentgen] knows where we stand, and we knows where he stands."

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